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Enhancing mobile handsets through Over the Air updates

Enhancing Mobile Handset Software Quality and Reliability Through Over the Air Update Technology

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By Yoram Salinger, President and CEO, Red Bend Software

Over the last several years, mobile telephones have evolved from relatively simple voice-based handsets to more sophisticated multimedia communication devices used for a wide range of personal and business applications. Today’s mobile phones commonly include voice-enabled dialing, media players, rich messaging applications, Web browsers, integrated cameras and other sophisticated features.

In order to keep up with consumer demand for new features, mobile handsets require increasingly complex software and firmware to be installed on the phones. The growing complexity of software, however, presents a significant challenge to mobile handset manufacturers and mobile telephone carriers: the ability to ensure quality and reliability. Given the volume of mobile handsets shipped—more than 500 million units expected in 2004—and the diverse conditions in which they are used, the likelihood of defects causing an operating malfunction increases.

Up to now, mobile handset manufacturers have relied primarily on a rigorous quality assurance (QA) process. This extended QA process, which can extend over many months, significantly delays the release of new phones to the market, making manufacturers extremely vulnerable to market competition.

Moreover, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ensure that the QA process is 100% reliable. Over the past several years, there have been multiple reports that handsets with seriously flawed software do get to the market, despite these rigorous QA controls. In addition, there are emerging cases of devices running software that is vulnerable to viruses and other unauthorized access.

Until now, the only remedy for manufacturers and carriers is to require users to return the devices to a service facility for repair or replacement. This is an expensive and inconvenient process for everyone involved—manufacturers, carriers and users. According to various industry sources, defects have been estimated to affect more than 80 million phones and cost mobile handset manufacturers and carriers more than $5 billion annually to repair.

To address the growing challenge of providing higher quality and more reliable software for mobile devices, a technology known as “over-the-air” (OTA) software updating is gaining broad acceptance in the mobile telephone industry. OTA software updating enables mobile device manufacturers and carriers to remotely and wirelessly update the software and firmware that controls the function of the handset. Software patches are delivered over the air, eliminating the need for the user to bring the handset back to the store.

The benefits to the customer go beyond fixing faulty software and firmware. OTA updating can be used to deliver new features and services to customers, without requiring them to bring their device to a service facility or purchase a new handset. In this way, carriers can conveniently deliver new services to individual users, in effect “personalizing” their handsets.. This has the advantage of enhancing customer loyalty while creating opportunities for carriers to generate additional revenue per subscriber.

Although OTA software updating can provide significant potential advantages, manufacturers and carriers face several challenges to successfully using this process, including network bandwidth limitations, device memory resource constraints, security concerns, reliability, and standards compliance and interoperability.

Embedded handset firmware typically requires image sizes in excess of 10 megabytes, and this requirement increases as handsets become more complex. Even with the advent of 3G mobile networks, bandwidth limitations make downloading files of this size difficult. Delivering the complete software image as a replacement update package by an OTA process would be lengthy, expensive, inefficient and impractical. With connection speeds as low as 9.6 kbps, a large update package increases the likelihood of both user frustration and update interruption or failure.

Manufacturers and carriers should select a technology that yields an update package that is significantly smaller than a complete replacement file. As a general rule, only these smaller packages can meet bandwidth, memory and reliability requirements.

The size of the update package will also have an impact on the time required to perform the update. In order to minimize the update process and reduce user downtime, manufacturers should consider the advantages of faster flash reprogramming as they evaluate OTA technology.

OTA update package size is constrained by the amount of available memory on the device to perform the update. Most mobile handsets have limited embedded memory. If a large update package is downloaded to the device, there may not be sufficient available memory to store the package and perform the update.  To address this issue, embedded software updates require the use of “in-place updating” – the ability to update device software in place of the currently running version. One of the significant challenges of in-place updating involves the “write-before-read conflict.” OTA software updating technology must overcome this conflict without increasing the update package (delta) size or compromising reliability and process efficiency.

Once a manufacturer has considered bandwidth limitations and memory constraints, it must also ensure that the updating process is secure and incorruptible, eliminating the risk of unauthorized access to the software operating on the mobile handset. To provide the required level of security, the OTA software update solution must provide mechanisms for verification and validation.

OTA update solutions that incorporate technology for pre-update validation provide a significant advantage to the manufacturers. This technology authenticates a new software version before the update process begins, including the delta file, the new version and the process itself, including any previously undetected bugs.  The update process will continue only if it can be confirmed that the new version is authorized.

In addition, the OTA software update process must be reliable under all conditions. A failed update that disables a handset can be worse than no update at all. Devices cannot be disabled due to errors or unexpected disruptions, even in the extreme range of conditions in which devices are operated.

One critical element of reliability to be considered is how the OTA update technology handles interruptions in the update process. Something as common as battery failure should not impede the updating process or require the user to begin again once the battery has been charged. More advanced OTA update technologies have provided mechanisms to recognize these interruptions and resume updating when the normal state is restored.

Another consideration for handset manufacturers should be the OTA update technology’s self-update capability. As standards and technology evolve, this self-updating capability will allow the update agent embedded in the handset to be upgraded remotely. In other words, the update agent itself can be updated using OTA technology. This provides the manufacturer a level of continuity, interoperability and investment protection.

A common issue in the wireless industry is standards compliance and interoperability, and this issue is no less complex when it comes to OTA. To manage their large subscriber bases, most carriers have implemented multiple systems to handle network management, billing, provisioning, customer support and other critical functions. These carriers have typically installed different systems from a variety of suppliers to assemble an infrastructure that meets their particular needs.

Carriers should not have to replace existing functioning systems in order to accommodate the OTA update solution. In considering OTA software update solutions, handset manufacturers and carriers should require that the solution be able to integrate with the heterogeneous array of applications installed. OTA update technology should comply with industry standards, such as OMA (SyncML)DM, and have demonstrated interoperability with a variety of complementary technologies.

Those manufacturers and carriers that select and implement effective OTA software update solutions can realize significant benefits. The ease with which critical software on mobile devices can be updated, upgraded, modified and repaired can have a direct impact on product success and bottom-line performance.

For mobile handset manufacturers and carriers, the ability to quickly, reliably and cost-effectively update software on mobile devices already in the hands of users can be a powerful advantage. OTA updating can help manufacturers and carriers gain quicker adoption of new features and services and reduce the cost of repair, service and troubleshooting – ultimately resulting in improved customer satisfaction, stronger customer loyalty, and more revenue per subscriber.

As mobile devices become more complex and more susceptible to defects and viruses, manufacturers are actively seeking solutions. Already, all major handset manufacturers are evaluating OTA vendors to install update capabilities on their devices. OTA technology can go a long way to ensure the security and reliability of critical device functionality, helping manufacturers speed time-to-market and gain share in the hotly competitive wireless market.

Yoram Salinger is the president and CEO of Red Bend Software.

Visit Red Bend Software online.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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